Christmas is enough to make a grown man cry.
I was a total sponge my intern year of missionary service in New Orleans. I had been clued in about several annual events that were especially important to our work in that skid row community. The most anticipated event among the members of the rehab program as well as the missionary staff was the Kid’s Christmas Party.
I had no clue how this kid’s party went. Kids were not a part of our street ministry and while most of the men in our rehab unit had kids it had been a long time since they had any contact with their own children. Honestly, those bridges were so burned that they did not even know where their children lived anymore.
November began to unveil the mysterious kids party. I came to understand that this party was planned and conducted by the men in rehab. It was a way for them to give back a little bit of something. It was a reminder that no matter how low one’s lot in life may be there is still a contribution that can be made. The men would obtain and wrap the gifts, plan the snacky menu for the kids, arrange for one of themselves to be Santa, and plan all the fun and festivities for the party. It was about a two-hour event.
Staff involvement was minimal. The missionaries invited kids from some nearby neighborhood, provided transportation and supervision for the party, and placed in the hands of the rehab men a letter which empowered them to knock on doors of local businesses to seek donations of toys for those kids. Toy-seeking was a very interesting part of the operation. These street hustlers were suddenly using their finely honed “salesmanship skills” for the positive purpose of helping others and not for their own simple street survival. They were masterful at making piles of toys appear out of nowhere.
The day of the party was coming soon. I had plenty of questions but instead of getting answers I was told to show up, sit back, and watch it happen. As a 24 year-old intern working with alcoholics in their mid-50’s I was about to learn a lot. It was my job to provide counseling and to facilitate small group work in the recovery program. I was less than half their age. Their life experience was incredible. I felt like I had very little to offer. But clearly the Lord would use this day to help frame my missionary work and vision for years to come.
When party day arrived the center was as neat as a pin. Decorations were in place. Santa had been chosen and uniformed. Food and snacks were ready. The kids would soon be arriving from one of our sister agencies. All the men were assembled, waiting, excited, and looking as tough as nails.
The party was everything we expected. The kids stuffed themselves with hot dogs, KoolAid, and candy. Each child left the party with several gifts… It could be that these gifts were the only gifts some would receive considering the neighborhoods from which they came. The kids were all smiles.
The other side was a little bit different. As the party began, our men were hosting a party for kids. At some unknown point everything changed. In the end, these kids were hosting a party for the men.
All went well through the games, fun, food, and the reselling of the Christmas story from Luke 2. When Santa arrived and the deliver of gifts began things flipped. Everyone made themselves to the big circle of chairs, about 30 of them. The chairs were for the men. The kids sat in the middle of the circle waiting for their names to be called by Santa.
One by one, each child received a gift, then another, and even a third gift. The gifts tags said they were from Santa. But after each gift the child climbed up into the lap of one of our men. These kids were careful to say thank you and to then give a big hug around the neck of these street-toughened men. I noticed what was happening but being ignored by the missionary staff. No missionary seemed concerned enough to follow our men out as they excused themselves for a few minutes.
I followed one man out, Big Jim. You can imagine why he was called Big Jim! He is the last guy you would ever expect to find curled up by himself in a chair sobbing. I asked Jim what was going on. He answered after gaining his composure… “I left my kids when they were just about that age.” He did not need to say anything else.
The pain was still there after all the years and across all the miles. Jim had no clue where his family was anymore, but in his mind, if only for a moment, he was once again there… HOME… being a dad… loving his kids… enjoying his family.
The bad news is that it was a very painful moment for our guys. The good news, it was a therapeutic moment that set in place some worthwhile goals for a serious recovery for men like Jim. The best news, Jim eventually (decades later) was “found” by his family and was reunited after too much lost, irrecoverable time.
I am now retired from that missionary service. I am serving as pastor of a church in our community. I still have contact with some of those guys who made it. But guess what… I still work with the same problems. But now, it is with families who are part of our faith community. Turns out that sin is an equal opportunity destroyer.